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Tim Fulford, Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0 521 55455 1 (hardback). Price: £35.00 (US$54.95).

  • Conrad Brunstrom

…more information

  • Conrad Brunstrom
    St Patrick's College

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The rhetoric of liberty in the long eighteenth century is so versatile and elastic that it is easy to dismiss the libertarian apostrophe in verse as a mere phatic convention. Tim Fulford treats Romantic versions of liberty critically but seriously, showing how variously utopian yearnings can be applied and appropriated by poets whose own political agendas are continually evolving. This book is about poetic and political uses of landscape and about the shift, announced by Cowper and achieved by Wordsworth, from a metaphorical reading of the natural world to a more fluid, contradictory, experiential relationship with Nature as a repository of wisdom(s). John Barrell and Jerome McGann stand clearly behind this book, but their achievement is both extended and challenged by Fulford's impressive close reading.

Anxious to exploit a satisfyingly expansive and enabling version of cultural materialist criticism, the author succeeds in applying Jerome McGann's methods of historicising romanticism, in a refreshingly flexible and creative way. Fulford is scrupulous in maintaining both the opportunities and the limitations of the Romantic radicalism, without suggesting that Romantic ideas of liberty can ever be securely tethered or plotted. The limitations of romantic radicalism can (and often do) appear painfully obvious to the modern reader, but Fulford is crucially interested not only in the extent to which 'freedom-loving' poets could be misinterpreted as revolutionaries (despite inhabiting a deeply traditional political mind-set) but also in the extent to which any attempted resolution of 'Liberty' and 'Authority' can be represented and yet deferred within the same poetic moment.

The reach of the book is impressive, stretching from Thomson to Coleridge, and covering a period of some ninety years. This reach is justified as Fulford crisply outlines the long history of political constructions of landscape, and more especially of what it can mean to 'command a prospect'. Fulford's recognition of the importance of Cowper is welcome, although his argument is slightly injured by a few distortions. (Like many before him, Fulford overstates John Newton's formative influence on Cowper, whose portentous evangelical mindset was established long before the poet ever met Newton.) Although Fulford is finally perhaps too comfortable with the idea of Cowper as a secure upholder of 'gentlemanly' values, Cowper emerges convincingly as a pragmatic and flexible manipulator of pastoral convention, oscillating between idealism and realism, creating and then testing emblems of order and of freedom in a suggestively incomplete way.

Fulford's discussion of the theorists of the 'picturesque' is also penetrating and plausible. Richard Payne Knight, Uvedale Price and William Gilpin are invoked to illustrate the tense negotiations between freedom and discipline that horticultural praxis perennially seems to demand. Gardening, both in practice and in theory, has always invited political readings and misreadings and controlling the balance between natural luxuriance and human authority cannot help but be a metaphor and more than a metaphor for constitutional deliberation. The tourist's 'gaze' and the landscaper's 'prospect' reflect an appreciation and command of organised labour as well as of organised landscape. The politicisation of the 'picturesque' is therefore implicit in the concept's original construction. In the 1790s the rhetoric of horticultural freedom sponsored eager or alarmist misreadings that enabled Knight in particular to offer unintentionally revolutionary possibilities.

Fulford is at his best writing on Wordsworth. The detailed and imaginative research he brings to bear on Wordsworth gives focus to what might be considered as a somewhat meandering text (although certain themes are strategically revisited chapter by chapter, most notably the experience of touring Scotland). Rather than merely plotting the intransigent ideological parameters of Wordsworth's political thought, Fulford sees Wordsworthian radicalism and subsequent reaction as unresolved instincts that help shape and then inhabit poetic form. Wordsworth's complex negotiations between concrete realisation and abstracted imagining provide the defining mechanism of his political turmoil. Fulford describes a Wordsworth who appeals to a sense of the obscure while fearing its repressive applications: "[Wordsworth's] imagination operates between the death of objects and the abyss of ideas, pondering the convolutions of its efforts to grant itself power my mystifying things"(p. 205). Fulford makes it clear that control is not merely a political desideratum. 'Control' is fundamental to any definition of literary authority. Objectification is both a personal/professional project and a public/political engagement.

Fulford's reading of Wordsworth's 'Yew Trees' is clearly intended as the critical centrepiece of the book, and as an exemplary reading intended to justify the author's whole approach. This reading is both persuasive and intriguing and deserves to become one of the more influential readings of any romantic poem in recent years. 'Yew Trees' is ostensibly an unlikely (and therefore a crucial) candidate for creative politicisation. The case for a questioning, politically engaged Wordsworth needs the sanction of just such a poem, traditionally regarded as the epitome of 'sublime detachment'. The urgent but complex patriotism of the poem indicates any number of political possibilities. Perhaps at the heart of any understanding of such fluctuating tendencies of Wordsworth's meditations on freedom and 'good order' is an appreciation of a fundamental epistemological problem of with whom the poet is expected to identify, and how such identifications can be sustained. In the meantime: "Patriotism is shown to depend neither on desire for glory nor on a code of honour, but on a sense of death discovered in the local landscape and made explicit by the poet" (p. 203). While rejecting Bloom's Freudian approach to poems such as 'Yew Trees', Fulford is interested in the problems of 'belatedness' in relation to the need to appeal to and yet establish literary authority.

At the conclusion of the book, in the course of Fulford's discussion of Coleridge, it becomes clear that 'paternalism', although frequently invoked by the conservative Wordsworth and Coleridge, has been thoroughly and irretrievably problematised by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The politics of nostalgia is troubled by an awareness that the custodians of traditional patronage can no longer necessarily be relied upon to guarantee the traditional rights and reassurances upon which national 'order' must depend. Fulford has succeeded therefore in combining a rich and detailed historical and political perspective with a critical yet creative sense of the contradictory impulses available within any given text. For this alone the book deserves to be widely read, thoroughly digested, and extensively argued about.

Romantic Circles Review